Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Baptism - Freely Given or Undervalued?

There is a debate raging, in my head at least, concerning the administration of Baptism. It is a debate that has murmured under the surface of a few conversations that I have been part of or privy too in recent years, and never with any sort of resolution.

Argument 1 - We want all people to be disciples of Christ, so of course we must baptize all those who seek it

Argument 2 - If someone asks for their child to be baptized, it would be bad form, rude even, to deny them that which they seek

Argument 3 - Seeds sown now may yield fruit later

... and so on! These are the arguments given by those who think that baptism should be freely granted to all who ask, and fair enough. They are valid views.

I have always wrestled with a sense that baptism seems too readily granted. Someone pops by the Vicarage or church, asks for baptism, gets it and then more often than not they vanish from whence they came. That might be as a result of poor follow-up pastoral care; it might be because that is the very nature of the beast; it might be that people seek baptism (and this debate is more to do with children presented as candidates by their parents and guardians) because it is "what you do". The simple fact is that baptism is less to do with initiation into the worshipping life of the church than other factors.

My instinct is to ask enquirers "and why so you want your child to be baptized?". Part of me fears the answer, but if I administer baptism without a concern for that, what implicit message am I delivering? That baptism doesn't really matter so go ahead, let's book a date. Indeed, the liturgists in their zeal to offer choice have created the Great Euphemism - the Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child order of service which, although never intended to be, has become 'Baptism Lite' so that we don't frighten people away with all the religious hocus-pocus.

Part of me thinks that if our faith is of life changing and affirming value to us as believers, we should administer its initiation scrupulously. Part of me still thinks that if faith is like that we should cast it far and wide (and hope some of it sticks?). Where does giving something freely become the administration of something that has no value? One is generous, one is insulting (to God, to believers and to those who really do value baptism). If I am honest, part of me thinks that baptism should be first step of a renewed pattern of behaviour that revolves around the community of which the baptized have just become member. Part of me thinks that if I took that view I might struggle for baptisms!

Thoughts, please ... 


  1. For me,from the other end of the baptism spectrum, it was the first truly solid step into a new way of life, after a very doubt-filled uncertain and tentative tip-toe approach.
    Whether a baby should be 'routinely' baptised just because it is the 'done' thing in some circles is very debatable.
    Perhaps the Baptist church is right to make the child wait until capable of independent choice.
    Or, possibly the Jesuit "give me the child and I will give you the man" approach is the right one.
    So glad my name isn't Solomon.

  2. I too struggle with this - but added to the mix, which you didn't comment on is that there is a legal right for people to Baptism - and if you read the BCP: "Due notice, normally of at least a week..", "No Minister shall refuse or, save for the purposes of preparing ..., delay..."

  3. I've always been (generally) relaxed about Baptism, some in the church service have been a pleasure to be present at, others make you feel you could have done something better with your morning!

    I delight when the Baptism party takes a real part in the whole service, but on the other hand, when the friends & family have no interest in the service, talk throughout, don’t get involved, have just come for the party etc. then it’s very hard going.

    In our church (as in many I imagine) there is a continuous debate (PCC and APCM) about Baptism within the service, some feel it’s important, others hate what they feel it does to the service and won’t come. These days about half the Baptisms are outside the main service

    In a conclusion of somewhat, I feel, if done for the ‘right’ reasons, not necessarily a lifelong association with the church but more than just an opportunity for a party, then Baptism is an important part of the life of the whole church.

  4. I suppose I'm torn between sticking to your guns or being quite relaxed about it? :(

    My Vicar seems to follow Baptise and hope that the pastoral contact will enable a continuing conversation about Christianity and perhaps coming to church and really 'join' the community that has welcomed their Child into their community. It seems to work pretty well. Our Mothers and Baby's group has an increasing number coming along.

    The thing that I find difficult about it all, is when Baptism is a pretext to get a child into a school. You don't see them until admission time approaches and than applications arrive at the Vicar's door asking him or her to confirm that the family are members of the parish and attend worship. This seems to me to put the Vicar in a difficult position, they either tell the truth or prevaricate. Not a good place to be.

    Not sure what the solution will be, without a wholesale conversion of England (which the Catholics pray for regularly). Perhaps we should try the same.

  5. I think Vicars should be allowed to refuse I know of a couple parents who have had their child christened just because as you say it the thing to do or just so they can have a party! Maybe if the Church charged for it folk may think about what it means.

  6. Nowhere in my ordination vows did I agree to be God's gatekeeper. Also I believe in God's grace. Therefore, although I have asked your questions in the past, I now realise that it is none of my business. It's not in my job spec. My job is simply to preside at the sacraments.

    There is no mention in the gospels of people seeking baptism being quizzed before being dunked. In fact, we have instead the positive commandment to go out into the world, call people to repentance and baptize them. We are not told to decide who has repented. I really do believe this is because both John the Baptist and Jesus believed that God was a part of the process and that they both believed that it is a very bad thing for humans to claim for themselves those things that are God's alone.

  7. When we took our 6 week old son to put his name down for the church school we were asked by the headmaster if he had been baptised. Although he hadn't, it had been arranged for the Sunday nearest his Dad's birthday, Annunciation Day, March 25th.

    The attraction of a good school resulted in a number of parents joining the church, there were adult baptisms and confirmations and many of these parents are worshipping and serving still.

    Bit different for us, we had been married at the church, also I had been confirmed there as a teenager so the connexions were not new. We are there still.

    Perhaps an effort could be made to keep in touch with the parents after baptism, invitations to the Crib service, Pet service, to the family service on the anniversary of the baptism, even to fetes and social events so if parents want a signature for admission to the school some three years later it will be in good faith.

    How else are we going to bring in the next generation to fill positions on PCC, sing in the choir and contribute to Common Fund?

  8. Once in a while I find myself agreeing with MP! Two things really - Baptism is God's gift of grace to the child, not yours, and secondly, it's the child you are baptising, not the parents.

    HOWEVER!!! By wanting to have Junior "done", whether because it keeps Granny quiet, it's a good excuse for a party, it gets you into the better schools or just because 'you don't go to heaven when you die if you've not been done', the parents have presented you with a BIG BIG pastoral opportunity and how you deal with that can determine whether you ever see Junior again or not. So don't make them jump through hoops, go on courses, tolerate six visits from the Mothers' Union, promise to be in Church once a month for life or otherwise do something they may not be ready for.

    Let them know how delighted you are that they have turned up, make them feel welcome and comfortable and give them a happy day. God will do the rest.

  9. Being in a church of an evangelical persuasion, this is one we've really struggled with too.

    Many people still want that 'celebration' of their child, so often bringing two families together for the first time ever - long before marriage might occur. There was a great piece in the Church Times not that long ago which grappled with some of this (can't link it's paywalled).

    It occurred to me recently that there was some belief required when St John baptised (the Jewish system), and early Christians were all believers in the resurrected Jesus before they were baptised - usually after months of preparation. When did infant baptism become the 'norm' in the church?

    The doctrine of grace is powerful and important, but the parents and Godparents have to make promises before God about their faith so surely we need to help them not to purger themselves by preparing them if they are acting on behalf of children to young to make their own decision.

    In our church insist of baptism being part of a morning service, because how else can we welcome a child into the family of God?! This is often a real surprise for people, but they still seem to want to go through with it... perhaps their belief in God's grace is stronger than their fear of the family of God?! Anyway, up to this point Thanksgiving Services have only been taken up by families of faith within the congregation who will be bringing up their children in the church, and so know that those kids will have the opportunity to make their own informed decisions later in life.

    We've historically visited each family at home - once by a lay person (me recently), once by the clergy who will do the baptism. But this has meant families still come to something that they find really strange and scary when they arrive to have their child baptised in a morning service. So to try and help them engage more fully with the church, and meet the family of God that will be welcoming them before we get to the baptism we're trying something new - it's the new vicar's idea. Rather than explain it here, if anyone is interested I've explained it here http://ramtopsrac.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/encounter-baptism-and-thanksgiving-preparation/

    Thing is, I don't think I've answered your question! Sorry.



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